Updated: Oct 3
Note: This is a very brief overview of this topic. A though look would be book length with hundreds of footnotes and would be the product of a team working for years. Sadly I no longer work for a research university so I don’t have access to grants, graduate assistants and the infrastructure to do that kind of project…though I wish I did.
While our experience is that human societies normally operate in a patrilineal manner, (children are seen as a product of the man so family lines follow the father), that has not always been the case. Archeological and anthropological evidence would suggest that for perhaps 90% of the entire history of humankind, this was not the case. To the best of our knowledge, matrilinealism, where children are seen as a product of the woman and so family lines follow the mother, was the global norm prior to about 5,000 years ago.
While this might seem an esoteric point, it is not. In practice these two concepts reflect far more than simply who “owns” children. Instead, this division reflects how society’s see women, sexuality and spirituality. One might go as far as to suggest that the shift from matrilineal to patrilineal at the advent of intensive agriculture some 5,000 years ago; and the current tilt back to matrilineal family structures in advanced western societies can be seen as a foundational way to categorize human, gender and sexual relations.
Since patrilinealism is the most familiar concept, I will start with an overview of the practice and its implications before contrasting it to matrilinealism.
Patrilinealism was predicated for thousands of years on the belief that children were created when men provided the “seed” and women provided no more than a space for incubation. The understanding that women and men both contributed half of a child’s DNA has not changed the patrilineal outlook. In fact, the modern efforts to criminalize women terminating their pregnancy openly state that women are no more than incubators to an egg that a man has fertilized. The role and the place of women in all patriarchal societies is simply to produce the offspring of men.
With the foundation that children are grown from the seed of a man, the conception that women have no intrinsic value naturally follows. Sex is something men do to implant their seed: sex is something men do TO women. The Bible and other monotheistic ancient texts nearly universally describe semen as the seed. Like with any other seed, it is self-contained and only needs a warm moist place to be sewn to produce a new life. Women, particularly women’s vaginas, are repeatedly described as a field in need of plowing and seeding by a man. In this process the woman has no agency. She is a vessel (and often a vassal) whose only value is as a place for the man’s seed to grow. The current crude description of a woman as a “cum dump” is simply a crass way of putting this commonly held belief. In the patrilineal view, sex is fundamentally an act of ownership or conquest, even if it is given a veneer of kindness.
What is astounding to me is how many people who proport to be pro-woman continue to embrace this view of sexuality. There is a whole wing of feminism that openly states that heterosexual sex is inherently an act of violence against women. They don’t even realize they have become so inured into this patrilineal belief system that they can’t see beyond it. They can’t imagine a world where women own their sexuality and men serve their needs.
Let us now contrast this to matrilineal societies.
Artifacts left from humans from before the advent of intensive agriculture (about 5,000 years ago), and studies of isolated societies all the way up to the 19th century tell a very different view of women and sexuality.
The foundational belief that seems to have dominated these societies was that women were semi-divine in that they, and only they, could create children. This magical view of woman’s reproductive powers is seen in the artifacts commonly called Venus figures. The most ancient of all human sculptures, these devotional objects depict a woman with enlarged breasts and an enlarged and open vagina in a birthing posture. These sculptures, often amulet sized, were objects of veneration of the life-giving power of womanhood. I should note that religious practices from about the start of the first millennia BCE, have similar sexual amulets, but they depict an erect penis. The shift of adoration for fertility from the woman to the man was complete by then.
In the matrilineal vision of the creation of life, the man does not provide the seed; but rather the rain to provide moisture to allow the seed to grow. In some ancient languages, the word for semen and rain are the same. The woman, not the man, provides the seed of life and so the child is the woman’s offspring, not the man’s.
This simple change alters how the sex act itself is conceptualized and executed. The act of insertion of a man’s penis into a woman’s vagina and injecting semen becomes a service to her, not a conquest. Thus, the female is the dominant partner and the man approaches the woman as a supplicant, not a master.
It is interesting to note that we still call the sexual position when the man lays on top of the woman to dominate her as the “missionary” position. There seems to be some disagreement as to where this term originated (the Pacific Islands is the most common place); but the why is not in question. When European missionaries began to erase the indigenous cultures around the globe, their practice of male superior sex, was entirely novel in those places. In the Pacific Islands, the Americas and parts of Africa & Asia, there is no evidence the population engaged in male-superior sex prior to colonization. As the most common explanation goes: in the Pacific Islands, the native population had no taboo against watching couples copulate (nor shame in being watched). Public and/or semi-public sex at celebrations seems to have been common. The natives who peeked in on missionaries having sex with their wives were amused at the male-superior position because it seemed so unnatural. What the natives did not know, was Christian authorities at the time called any other position sinful because it made the woman equal to the man.
Beyond the sex act itself, the idea that the child is the creation of the woman, also means that identity, wealth and social status is passed through her, not from the male(s) who provided water for the seed. This allows the woman to choose the sperm donor based on criteria she seeks, not based on social status or other reasons. This again is a fundamental difference in how society is organized.
We are fortunate that 18th & 19th century anthropologists were able to access and record the traditions of a number of matrilineal societies before their traditional cultures were nearly completely wiped out by monotheist. In the Americas, the Artic, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific Islands, anthropologist found aspects of matrilinealism present; though in almost all cases it was wiped out once the native populations were “civilized.”
Interestingly though, matrilinealism does not necessarily equate to matriarchy. In other words, just because women own their sexuality, does not mean they control their society. Political & military power does not necessarily follow the power of procreation and inheritance. In societies like the Arctic where there is an issue of lack of genetic diversity, women are free to receive sperm from any suitable male who happens to come to their isolated community. A healthy virile visitor is not only allowed to copulate with the wives’ of local men; the women are encouraged to seek it out. Of course, such societies didn’t actually know how genetics worked; however, thousands of years simply pushed these social norms because they led to more robust children.
In other societies, women were encouraged to invite multiple strong healthy men to “water her seed” so as to improve the quality of her offspring. In some African societies, it was firmly believed that it required the input from several men to bear healthy children at all. In a number of recorded social groups, the sheer volume of semen was thought to be a determining factor; so a woman who wanted to bear a child sought out multiple men to repeatedly provide as much “water” as possible to hasten conception. In other groups, the growing child was seen to need continuous “watering” by multiple men to grow healthy. It should be noted that in some recorded cases, the woman did not choose who provided the ‘water’, but all virile men in her extended family were expected to contribute. Though in others it seems the woman could pick and choose whose penis came into her to provide the nourishment to the growing child.
Matrilinealism also existed in socially stratified societies in both the ancient Near East and in the Pacific Islands. In some of these cases, males were required to engage in elaborate veneration rituals before copulating with a high-status woman. There is evidence that in the early Near East that men first had to bring a high-status woman to orgasm before he could insert his penis. In other cases, the man was expected to bring on orgasm after he had ejaculated in her. In both cases, men underwent specific training on how to have sex with high status women. Importantly, this focus on women’s pleasure was not necessarily part of seeking conception; but merely a form of morality. Though I should be clear, the exact practices of ancient societies is built on interpretation of fragmentary evidence; rather than from observation. While any particular practice for a particular people in pre-history might be based on extrapolation; the larger picture of the high value of women’s sexuality in pre-history has a solid foundation.
Some of the common traits that were found in matrilineal societies are important to note. Most importantly is the woman’s right to choose who enters her body. In a matrilineal world, an unmarried woman can choose to ask a man to put his penis in her; or chose not to. It is nobody’s business but her own. She does not loose “value” after she has sex even if that sex act conceives a child. When a woman in a matrilineal society chooses to join herself to a man in marriage; she does not give up ownership of her vagina. She still has a perfect right to invite a man (or many men) to put their penis inside of her. Since the value of the man’s contribution in conception is to water her seed; it simply doesn’t matter who or how many men had watered that seed when a child is born.
From these things, flow a number of important other features of a matrilinear society. One is that a woman’s economic value flows down to her from her mother and up from her children. While a man is expected to contribute to the family; the accumulated wealth is under her control. In this system, a man is highly motivated to be a loving and attentive husband and father to her children… all of them. He is also disincentivized to simply walk off and leave her once she is no longer as young and pretty as she once was…since he would be leaving all his wealth to her and her kids.
Related to this, on a more intimate level men are also incentivized to show respect and deference to the woman in the sex act. The woman is not a mere receptacle for his semen; but she is an object of veneration and the holder of his economic well-being. In our patrilineal world, sex is usually seen as something men DO TO women; but, in a matrilineal world sex is something men do FOR women.
I would contend, that like it or not, advanced Western societies are slowly returning to some aspects of the matrilineal world. Now that in most of the advanced world, women own their own prosperity and have their own wealth. The education gap between men and women has reversed itself in the US, with women having significantly more education and professional credentials than men. While their still exists a wage gap between men and women in the US, in much of Europe that gap is almost gone; and in time, if men continue opting out of advanced education, we may see the day when men earn less than women.
What I would like my readers to consider from this short overview, is that it is not the “natural” way to treat women as simply objects of men’s sexual desires. It astounds me when I look across the net how common is the theme of male subjection of women and of the devaluing of female sexuality. Worse yet, I see it in places that claim to be sexually progressive. Not only must we not engage in such behavior, but we must actively push back on these themes.
I would suggest, that one of the cornerstones of a truly sex-positive society must be to utterly reject the concept that men “naturally” are sexually dominant. We should embrace the idea that the woman’s power of conception is indeed a form of semi-divinity, and treat female sexuality with the respect that it deserves and held for hundreds of thousands of years.